What rules the conversation?

man_woman_discussing

Jon just received an offer for his dream job: a more challenging job (in a good way), a bump in salary and a plum location.

The only trouble is, he enjoys working for his current boss Sarah, and he’s unsure how to explain that he’s leaving.  Hired directly out of college by Sarah, Jon hasn’t had to navigate a resignation conversation before.

As Jon speaks with Sarah, there are two types of rules that will govern how their conversation unfolds. Constitutive rules help us understand how to create meaning. Regulative rules guide the behavior of the conversation and communicate what happens next in a conversation.

Jon begins his conversation with Sarah by sharing how much he has learned from her in the five years he’s worked for her.  He mentions that she has been a role model in navigating office politics and securing resources.  Sarah must determine how to interpret Jon’s praise of her leadership (constitutive rule). She will draw on past experiences of being complimented on her leadership style and what those remarks meant (as well as her relationship with Jon) as she applies constitutive rules to make sense of what he means.

“However,” Jon continues, invoking a constitutive rule that suggests Sarah will need to make additional meaning out of what comes next. “I’ve made the difficult decision to take a role with a new firm.”

Sarah must compose some sort of response, governed by a regulative rule.  She may ask for more information about the new opportunity Jon is pursuing or if there’s anything she could do to persuade him to stay.

As the two engage in the conversation and co-create their social reality, they will discover each other’s rule systems. Some rules they have known from working together and some will be discovered in this novel situation.

While these rules are not spoken of aloud, they are constantly being negotiated in the moment, drawing on the life experiences and world views of the conversational partners, which may vary markedly. They may not agree entirely on the rules they are choosing to enact, but at least they can make sense of their conversation and what will happen next.

What conversational rules can you identify – either constitutive or regulative – and how do they shape meaning making or turn taking in the conversation?

  • 2